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Specific signs of aging are scrutinized more harshly in women than they are in men.jacoblund/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

The idea of anti-aging has been around for as long as, well, aging.

From messaging about how anti-aging needs to start early to the sizable portion of our beauty industry that’s dedicated to keeping us looking young, society has long been obsessed with the appearance of youthfulness.

“There will always be fear of aging and mortality and that’s part of our human condition,” says Dr. Geeta Yadav, founder and dermatologist at Facet Dermatology in Toronto, adding that the fixation on youth ”has been part of our culture for thousands of years.”

What does “aging” really look like?

When aging comes up in a beauty context, many first think of fine lines and wrinkles. But according to Yadav, there are many other ways age changes our appearance.

“Hair loss is a big one, for men and women,” she says. When it comes to skin in particular, “it’s other obvious signs, like volume loss and skin texture, or sunspots.”

Although the anti-aging beauty market overwhelmingly targets women, aging is also a concern for men. She sees far fewer men than women but says they usually come in for obvious issues, like hollowing under the eyes and volume loss in the face.

Yet even with some men partaking in the rituals associated with anti-aging, women are still punished harder for not keeping up their appearances, says Amina Mire, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton University. And, some specific signs of aging are simply scrutinized more harshly in women than they are in men.

“A lot of men do colour their hair,” says Bahar Niramwalla, a long-time beauty editor at outlets like Global News, Cityline and BeautyDesk.com. “However the old school of thought that a man becomes wise as he becomes old and that is revered, while a woman becomes really old when she becomes old, and that is to be feared – that narrative absolutely still exists.”

Take Canadian media legend Lisa LaFlamme, for example. In August, LaFlamme was unceremoniously let go from her job helming one of Canada’s most-watched nightly newscasts on CTV. Following her departure, it was reported that higher ups at the company had expressed concern over her grey hair.

CTV, for its part, maintains they ended LaFlamme’s contract because of “changing viewer habits.”

“George Clooney is 61 years old, he is considered very attractive,” Mire explains. “He wears his grey hair with pride.” She continues: “LaFlamme on the other hand, is well-known, is a very attractive, smart woman, but yet grey hair for women of her calibre becomes an issue.”

Why are we still talking about this?

If poking and prodding ourselves this way feels like it should be a thing of the past, Mire explains that anti-aging is still top of mind for many because it’s taken on a new life in the wellness space.

“Beauty has been rebranded as a visual marker of wellness, health and productivity,” she says. “Youth equals health, health equals productivity and desirability,” Aging, on the other hand, “means pain, decline, burden on society, and also shows lack of self responsibility.”

The pandemic has also dramatically shifted our relationship to our own appearance, says Yadav. With offices closed and most of our interactions moving online, we had a lot more time to pick apart our flaws. Still, she says the hold that anti-aging has on us also has a lot to do with our relationship to getting older in general.

“It’s challenging to see yourself age; for men and for women,” she says. “I think what we’re really talking about is aging positively, and wanting to have your physical self match your psychological self and the stage that you’re in.”

Selling agelessness

Some skin care lines, like Tula Cosmetics and By Sarah London, are doing things differently.

“Over the past decades, I think brands have taken more of a supportive stance and I think that that’s much more positive than shaming consumers into taking care of their skin,” Yadav says.

Tula, for instance, boasts to their customers that “There’s nothing ‘anti’ about aging,” and that “Ageless is the new anti-aging.”

An industry veteran, Niramwalla is careful to note that although pro-aging sounds great on paper, even that may be just another marketing strategy. Under its “ageless” line, Tula sells a deep wrinkle serum and firming moisturizers, while Sarah London claims to simply be helping older women “support” their skin through the aging process with their collagen and hyaluronic acid – ingredients that are designed to ultimately smooth, plump and diminish the signs of aging.

Niramwalla says her preferred approach to choosing skin care is to do it for the love of the product and the process, not for a purported end goal of lifelong youthfulness.

“Whatever persona a brand or a company wants to put forward to you, I think should be met with a healthy, large scoop of skepticism because these are not human beings – they are companies. They can’t embody morals and ethics and values at the end of the day,” she says. Indeed, anti-aging is big business: According to Euromonitor International, the global market grew from US$25-billion to nearly US$37-billion in 2021. “Enjoy the beauty products that are in front of you for what they are, not these empty promises that they make.”

The future of anti-aging

Mire says she doesn’t see our obsession with anti-aging ending anytime soon, particularly because it’s now being marketed to consumers in a language that seems to empower them, suggesting they can have some agency over a process as inevitable as the passage of time.

She does worry about women being under even more pressure to disguise their aging, and that those who can afford to buy products to aid in this will gain an edge. This, she says, doesn’t bode well for women who may not have enough resources to retire and therefore need to work longer. “You’ll see a demand to look youthful,” she predicts, “where women are literally forced to appear younger, in order to work longer.”

Yadav, for one, sees the shift to supportive marketing as potentially beneficial.

“I think the message is still clear: Consumers still want younger and flawless skin, and there is a demand out there for this,” she says. It’s important for companies to find “a supportive way to deliver on that. People are not looking for gimmicks, they’re looking for honesty in this approach.”